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Decolonizing Modernism: James Joyce and the Development of Spanish American Fiction by José Luis Venegas (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 48, Number 4, Summer 2011
pp. 772-775 | 10.1353/jjq.2011.0082

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In the past twenty years, the exploration of the intricate relations between literary modernism and the historical contingencies of modernity fostered by Anglo-American modernist scholarship has revealed that modernism was constructed according to multiple and heterogeneous discourses often competing to provide the right answer to the question “what is modernism?” This critical interrogation of the modernist project has exposed many contradictions that ultimately originate in the coexistence of irreconcilable interpretations concerning the relationship between modernist art and reality.1 In this context, Decolonizing Modernism: James Joyce and the Development of Spanish American Fiction must be greeted as a new study that further enriches previous critical revisions of monolithic views of “canonical” modernism, traditionally characterized by its uncompromising intellectuality, formalism, detachment, and reflexivity.2 Drawing on the idea (well established by now) that Joyce’s modernism opened up new spaces for the expression of political and social claims on reality, José Luis Venegas concentrates on texts representative of the Latin-American literary “Boom”3 and discusses them in the light of the accepted critical assumption that Joyce’s Ulysses is indisputably a central model for the development of Spanish-American fiction. As the author himself emphasizes, however, his approach deviates from prevailing notions advocating the idea that Joyce’s influence on Latin-American literature simply mirrors Spanish-American writers’ embrace of European modernist aesthetics in their urge to abandon the narrow nativist concerns of their predecessors. In this respect, Decolonizing Modernism is indeed a timely intervention that intelligently examines complex aspects of the influence of Joyce in Latin America since, as Venegas repeatedly claims throughout the book, this fruitful negotiation must be understood not in terms of the cultural dependence of Spanish-Americans (whom Octavio Paz described as “inhabitants of the suburbs of history”4) on a first-world writer but rather as a dialogue of complicity among equals, an encounter between “peripheral intellectuals” (3).

As the title and subtitle imply, Venegas’s intention is twofold: he seeks to resituate the relevance of Joyce in relation to “the [d]evelopment of Spanish American Fiction” and simultaneously to elucidate a different approach to modernism as a site of “uncharted crossings where literary innovation arises from a daring ‘irreverence’ towards metropolitan literary models” (22). Those who fear that this is simply another study on modernism revisited (for the millionth time) will be pleasantly surprised. Beyond the expected de-canonization and politicization of Joyce’s modernism deeply indebted to postcolonial and Marxist critiques, Venegas’s work establishes a solid ground for the exploration of unsuspected connections in a transnational and international literary space that clearly invokes Pascale Casanova’s proposal for new ways of looking at literary phenomena in her emblematic The World Republic of Letters.5 Thus, in chapter 1, Venegas contends that there exists an unmistakable transatlantic link between Joyce’s modernist “dissociation of sensibility,” which Ulysses “would incite rather than remedy,” and the impetus behind the experimental narrative of the “boom” (31). If Ulysses became a persistent reference for writers such as Carlos Fuentes, Julio Cortázar, Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez, and others, it was not merely (as has frequently been maintained) because of its cosmopolitan and modern-its cosmopolitan and modernizing force but rather because of the revolutionary impulses of Joyce’s modernist aesthetics, which are accordingly transferred from colonial Ireland to the Spanish-American context: “a declaration of cultural independence” and a “decolonizing aesthetic move” (31).

Venegas’s painstaking research of articles on Joyce, published between 1940 and 1960 in the prominent Buenos Aires journal Sur (a major publication for the introduction of modernism), proves essential for this historical re-contextualization of “Joycism in Spanish America” (32). As the author insists, in seeking to dismantle the canonical construction of Joyce’s modernism endorsed by the Spanish-American intelligentsia in Sur, he ultimately aspires to inaugurate a line of criticism that facilitates the formation of an “alternative literary history” (32). The need for this alternative approach had already been the claim of a number of writers and critics whose reading of Joyce’s fiction in the 1950s and 1960s (an effervescent period of political decolonization) suggests connections between the Irish writer and Spanish-American literature...



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